DOHNANYI: Serenade for String Trio; String Quartet; Sextet for Piano, Clarinet, Horn, and String Trio – The Nash Ensemble – Hyperion 

The Nash Ensemble thoroughly beguiles us in diverse chamber works by Ernst von Dohnanyi.

DOHNANYI: Serenade for String Trio, Op. 10; String Quartet No. 3 in A minor, Op. 33; Sextet for Piano, Clarinet, Horn, and String Trio, Op. 37 – The Nash Ensemble – Hyperion CDA68215, 76:08 (6/1/18) [Distr. by Harmonia mundi/PIAS] ****:  

Dohnányi composed the Serenade for String Trio in 1902 during a concert tour to London and Vienna, just seven years after his Op. 1 Piano Quintet. He created serenade in the tradition of both Brahms and Robert Fuchs, even while maintaining a strong, Hungarian flavor. The Serenade begins with a lively march—and its own inversion of the theme—and this tune will end the work, cyclically. The Nash Ensemble—Stephanie Gonley, violin; Lawrence Power, viola; Adrian Brendel, cello—jars us with the crisp, Magyar accents and rustic impulses that would soon influence Bartok and Kodaly. Kodaly, in a letter to his wife Emma, exclaimed, “It is for the Serenade alone that I love him.” A slow movement Romanze follows, evoking the traditional serenade with guitar-like pizzicato, a lyrical song in the violin part interrupted briefly by a passionate outburst. The third-movement Scherzo: Vivace exploits chromatic, irregular rhythmic energies with a bristling fugue and a tuneful trio that combine simultaneously in the scherzo’s reprise. A melancholy, Magyar, hymn-like theme provides the basis for a brooding set of variations in the manners of Schubert, Dvorak, and Brahms: another slow movement that leads to the rollicking Rondo finale that suggests the influence of Beethoven’s string trios as models. The opening march cleverly remerges to close the Serenade with nervous symmetry, given that the returned C Major bears melancholy of the main theme.

The String Quartet No. 3 (1926) testifies to the composer’s desire to create an ambitious structure in the form. The first movement, Allegro agitato e appassionato, has an edgy, angular atmosphere. The lyrical counter-theme enters without prior development of the opening, and the entire tonal syntax of the music seems detached from the composer’s original Hungarian roots and committed to a more abstract, anguished sensibility. We feel that the spirit of Bartok looms nigh, cross-fertilized by polyphonic, manically driven impulses taken from late Beethoven. The two low strings offer much that proves both dissonant and viscerally affecting. Second violin Laura Samuel lends her talents to the sonic effect. The center of the work—Andante religioso con variazioni—places a scherzo-like section in the middle, adding to the ternary symmetry. The slow movement takes its cue from a chorale, rather meditative, and the first variation extends the quietude and reflection, often reminiscent of Dvorak.  The second variation skitters energetically with light feet, the composer’s whirlwind answer to Mendelssohn and his ilk. The third variation treats the first violin and subsequent members in concertante fashion over huge choral harmonies. A meditative, final variation follows, a nocturne for violin, viola and pulsating and warbling strings. The last movement, Vivace giocoso, enjoys a swagger that might be attributed to Brahms, although jazz elements and moments from Shostakovich might receive more than passing hints. Once more, the viola of Lawrence Power makes its presence felt.

The Sextet in C Major, Op. 37 (1935) indulges in harmonic and textural complexity for its own sake. Ian Brown, piano; Richard Hosford, clarinet; and Richard Watkins, horn lend their color support to this fascinating piece. The opening Allegro appassionato, moves with decisive resolve, with the clarinet’s offering solace that piano and strings take up. In tripartite form, the movement allows ample room for horn and clarinet to mix, while the piano writing remains brilliant and idiomatic. The writing can become lushly romantic or lightly whimsical by turns. The second movement, Intermezzo: Adagio offers the string trio in a tranquil moment, punctuated by rising piano chords. The music sounds much like Schumann, and the piano will introduce a sinister, jabbing march that clarinet and horn support. The drama culminates in the strings.  The relative serenity of the piece returns, the horn’s assuming a tender character, with only a shadow of the march in our thoughts. The Allegro con sentimento opens in the clarinet, a theme that Brown’s Steinway will decorate while a four-note “fate” motif intrudes upon the filigree. Risoluto, the mood changes into something of Mendelssohn, vigorous and playful that has become Presto and scherzo-like. Romantic impulses derived from the opening move into a section, Andante tranquillo, that sings in an illumined nocturne, especially for the horn over soft piano ostinatos.  The sound swells with the addition of the clarinet to move, attacca, to the Finale: Allegro vivace, giocoso, in a tune that sounds like something from Gershwin or Charles Chaplin. A waltz suddenly injects itself most fluently within the frame of the jazzy tune, and the two impulses indulge in lively colloquy, especially clarinet and piano. The waltz comes back, lyric and insistent; and we sense early on that the waltz will exclaim passionately before the coda before the jaunty, rapid figures assert their dominion.

The recorded sound (24-26 June 1017), thanks to producer Andrew Keener, has been lusciously pungent. I am also thankful that Music@Menlo had first introduced me to the mysteries of the Sextet.

—Gary Lemco

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